As competent as Japanese cruisers are, they rarely are motorcycles that attract attention. Instead, they typically go about their business in a way that is as competent as it is unobtrusive. Not so with the 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom.
Although the Custom has been around for 13 years with no changes that we can determine, Kawasaki came up with a head-turning paint job that definitely grabs eyeballs. If you’re thinking about picking up the 2020 edition of the Vulcan 900 Custom, be aware that you will be answering questions in gas stations, and people will be giving you thumbs up at stoplights.On my first ride, I had a guy taking pictures of the bike, unable to accept that it has an MSRP of just $8499. Some lucky salesman at a local Kawasaki dealer probably had the easiest sale in history the next day. So, be ready to be the center of some attention aboard the 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom.
The good news is that there is much more to the motorcycle than its Metallic Matte Graphite Gray/Metallic Flat Spark Black paint—yes, that’s how Kawasaki describes it, ignoring the orange stripe on the tank that matches the pinstriping on the wheels. Underneath that, and against all odds for a motorcycle that is unchanged in 13 years, the 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom is a pleasure to ride.
Befitting its age and lack of development, the 900 Custom is about as basic as it gets. Yes, there is EFI and liquid-cooling, but forget about something as rudimentary as ABS (even as an option). Don’t even ask about power modes, traction control, adjustable suspension, or LED lighting—the answers are all a resolute “no.”
In a way, though, that’s all a bit liberating. It is more of an elemental experience—just you and the motorcycle making your way through town. The 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom is definitely an urban mount. Its front wheel is a razor-thin 21-incher, and the back a 15-inch rim with a modest 180mm tire. When was the last time you saw a six-inch difference between wheel diameters? That disparity suggests form over function.
The reality is, the Vulcan 900 Custom performs much better as a motorcycle than its specs and appearance would suggest. Riding around town, it has a light feel—even though it weighs a substantial 611 pounds full of fuel—as the narrow front wheel keeps the steering effort down. The highly manageable 27-inch seat height does its part to give the Custom encouraging agility.
Ergonomics play their part in making the Vulcan 900 Custom as much a rider as a looker. The forward foot controls aren’t too far forward for comfort, and the handlebars are on tall risers that bring the grips back to the rider in a natural position.
The broad, supportive seat is good for hours without a break, making the 900 Custom an excellent motorcycle for exploring the urban landscape. I couldn’t entirely empty the stylish, yet cavernous tank in one sitting. The Custom carries a whopping 5.3 gallons, as it shares the tank with the Vulcan 900 Classic LT weekend tourer.
Relatively long-travel suspension keeps the worst of decaying city roads from ruining the ride. There are almost six inches of fork travel, and that takes away the hard edges of potholes and dips.
There are over four inches of linkage-assisted rear wheel movement—it just looks like a hardtail—and Kawasaki engineers gave it enough cushion without making it spongy. Many riders are indifferent about cruiser suspension, but the homework was done on the 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom.
Impressively, the Custom works quite well in canyons, especially considering its generous rake of 33 degrees. Mulholland Drive bisecting the Hollywood Hills is about as good as it gets for testing urban handling. It has every kind of corner imaginable, also with wide swings in pavement quality. Any motorcycle that can handle Mulholland Drive has got its city chops down, and that applies to the Vulcan 900 Custom.
You expect light steering with the 21-inch front wheel that has a tire just 80mm wide—that’s a given. However, the Dunlop D404F holds its line as needed without drama. The 180 rear doesn’t object to turning, and it doesn’t take much effort to start dragging your bootheels in corners. Still, unless you’re really pushing it, the 2020 Vulcan 900 Custom has plenty of cornering clearance, along with inducing all the confidence you need to have fun when the road stops being straight.
Braking is adequate. You get more feel from the narrow front tire than anticipated, with the 300mm disc giving the tire all it can handle. I found myself using the rear brake most of the time, only going with the front when necessary. I would have liked the brake pedal to be an inch or so farther outboard, but it’s not too difficult to find with your right boot.
Power on the 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom is linear, with more bottom end than the oversquare architecture and four-valve heads would suggest. Hitting 58 ft/lbs at just 3500 rpm, there’s always acceleration available when needed, even on city freeways. Also, stability is excellent on the freeway, and the narrow Dunlop does not wander on rain grooves—impressive. The seating position doesn’t turn you into a sail at high speeds, which is a nice bonus.
The basic, traditional dash isn’t much to look at—it’s mounted on the tank and not in your direct view. There’s no tach, and you really have to be unwilling to shift if you’re hitting the rev limiter. The 903cc V-twin gets by fine with a five-speed transmission thanks to a wide rev range. The 900 Custom has Kawasaki’s convenient Positive Neutral Finder system. When you’re in first gear at a stop, just shift up, and you go into neutral. It works every time, and once you’re used to it, you don’t want to give it up.
The 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom pretty much has its class all to itself. You won’t find a 21-inch wheel on many customs these days—off the top of my head, all I can think of is the Harley-Davidson Breakout. Other motorcycles in its displacement and price class are quite different, so the Vulcan 900 Custom stands out in its approach. The good news is that in addition to being a great-looking motorcycle, it’s also an outstanding ride.
Photography by Kelly Callan
- Helmet: HJC IS-5
- Sunglasses: Sikk Shades by Eddie Bauer Jr. Qualifier
- Jacket: Joe Rocket Vintage Rocket
- Back protection: Alpinestars Celli
- Gloves: Joe Rocket Café
- Jeans: Joe Rocket Accelerator
- Boots: Highway 21 Low Primary Engineer
2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom Specifications
- Type: 55-degree V-twin
- Displacement: 903cc (55ci)
- Bore x stroke: 88 x 74.2mm
- Maximum torque: 58 ft/lbs @ 3500 rpm
- Compression ratio: 9.5:1
- Valvetrain: SOHC; 4 vpc
- Fueling: Dual 34mm Keihin throttle bodies
- Cooling: Liquid
- Transmission: 5-speed w/ Positive Neutral Finder
- Final drive: Belt
- Frame: Box-section backbone
- Front suspension; travel: Non-adjustable 41mm fork; 5.9 inches
- Rear suspension; travel: Linkage-assisted non-adjustable shock; 4.1 inches
- Tires: Dunlop D404
- Front tire: 80/90 x 21
- Rear tire: 180/70 x 15
- Front brake: 300mm disc w/ 2-piston Tokico caliper
- Rear brake: 270mm disc w/ 2-piston Tokico caliper
- ABS: None
DIMENSIONS and CAPACITIES
- Wheelbase: 64.8 inches
- Rake: 33 degrees
- Seat height: 27.0 inches
- Fuel capacity: 5.3 gallons
- Curb weight: 611 pounds
2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom Color:
- Metallic Matte Graphite Gray/Metallic Flat Spark Black
2020 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom Price:
- $8499 MSRP